Worldview Commentary No. 261 on Chicago Public Radio, 91.5 FM WBEZ

“Saving the Children: Mission Possible”

listen now icon news

For many Americans, the “right to life” brings to mind the debate over abortion. The same
phrase provokes other listeners to ponder the death penalty. But the right to life is equally at
stake in a much broader range of contexts.

Consider the global struggle to save the lives of young children. During the 1980s, the death rate
for infants and children under five years of age fell by 20% worldwide. The payoff: twelve
million children were given the gift of life.

But in the 1990s the rate of improvement dropped by half, to only a 10% reduction in infant and
young child mortality. By 2007, the world is still silent witness to the deaths – mostly avoidable -
- of 28,000 babies and toddlers every day.

Unlike many intractable problems of human rights, this one can feasibly be addressed and largely
overcome with a modicum of effort.

That is the hopeful lesson of a report released this week by the group, Save the Children. It
explains that 94% of all child deaths in the world occur in 60 developing countries. From 1990 to
2005, about one third of those countries made no progress or fell back, and one third made
modest progress, while another third succeeded in cutting their child death rates by 20% or more.

Fortunately, two of the ten most improved countries are also the world’s most populous nations.
China nearly halved its death rate for children under age five between 1990 and 2005, dropping
the rate from 49 per 1,000 — or one in 20 young children — to only 27 per 1,000. Although India
lags far behind China, it too made impressive strides, cutting its mortality rate in the same period
from 123 per thousand young children down to 74 per thousand.

Five of the other top ten most improved savers of children are also among the world’s most
populous nations: Indonesia, Brazil, Mexico, Bangladesh and Egypt. Egypt, the single most
improved country in the world, slashed its young child mortality rate by two thirds, from 104
down to only 33 per thousand.

Further good news is that the strategies used by the top performers are accessible and affordable
even in poor nations. Family planning was a key factor. In the five countries making the greatest
progress, women’s use of contraceptives rose and birth rates declined. As a result, mothers were
less prone to physical debilitation from constant childbirth, and families could focus more of their
resources to care for each child.

While religious views on family planning vary – the Vatican, for example, opposes artificial
contraception — other low-cost techniques were important as well. Malawi distributed mosquito
nets to protect sleeping children from malaria. Nepal trained 50,000 mostly illiterate mothers to
give children vitamins and vaccinations. Egypt launched public health campaigns to teach the
importance of hand-washing.

Poverty aggravates child mortality rates everywhere. Yet poverty need not be a death sentence
for entire populations of children. This is proved by the remarkable progress in one of the
world’s poorest nations, Bangladesh, which between 1990 and 2005 brought down its child death
rate from 149 to 73 per thousand.

The good news, then, is that millions of children can be saved through common sense,
economical efforts.

But there is also bad news. In ten countries – eight in Africa and two in Asia — there were
alarming increases in young child mortality rates, due in part to the ravages of AIDS and wars.
AIDS took a staggering toll of young children in Zimbabwe, Swaziland, and even in relatively
prosperous Botswana, where the death rate doubled from 50 per thousand in 1990 to 120 per
thousand in 2005.

War took its toll in Rwanda, where the pre-genocide child death rate of 173 in 1990 swelled to
203 per thousand in 2005.

Tragically and tellingly for American foreign policy, however, the worst increase in child
mortality in the world took place in Iraq. The combined effect of punishing economic sanctions
in the 1990’s, and the war launched against Iraq in 2003, more than doubled the death rate for
Iraqi babies and young children from 50 per thousand in 1990 to 125 per thousand in 2005.

In counting the casualties and costs of the ill-fated American invasion of Iraq, then, it is not
enough to count civilians killed by violence. Children who die from the combination of
malnutrition and the degradation of water, sewage and medical infrastructure, must be added to
the total carnage.

The lessons for American foreign policy are clear. We can intervene, for good or ill, either to
protect or to endanger the right to life of young children overseas.

On the one hand, for a relatively small cost, we can provide mosquito netting, vitamins and
training to poor mothers. On the other hand, for a relatively high cost, we can plunge a country
and its children into a death spiral. The next time America contemplates a military adventure, we
should make sure to count all the costs before, not after, deciding whether to go to war.


Doug Cassel’s commentaries are generally broadcast Wednesdays during the noon hour of the
Worldview program on Chicago Public Radio, 91.5 FM, and rebroadcast at 9 PM in the evening.
Views expressed are personal views of the author and not necessarily those of Notre Dame Law
School, the Center for Civil and Human Rights or Chicago Public Radio.